Gear Mania Comes Home to Roost

Illustrations by Keith Svihovec

Two years ago, just before Mountain Gazette senior correspondent B. Frank and I embarked upon a two-week pack-shlepping trip to Mexico’s rugged Copper Canyon, I did something I had not done in almost 20 years: I bought a whole slew of new backpacking gear, most of which I test drove on a three-day trek into the Gila with a couple of my long-time partners in backcountry crime. This was all in all a strange experience on a couple levels.

First, there was the fact that I was remarkably — stunningly, even — behind the times on when it came to technical issues, like the different species of materials now used for packs, sleeping bags, tents and raingear, and gear specs, like boil time for stoves and heat dispersal stats for cook kits. I mean, I felt like a goddamned caveman.

Then there was the fact that all of my old gear — a Lowe Contour IV pack, an MSR Whisperlite stove, an Evernew stainless-steel cook-kit, a Bibler two-door I-Tent, a Katadyn water filter, a North Face Chrysalis sleeping bag, a full-length Therm-a-Rest self-inflating pad, a Crazy Creek chair, a Mont-Bell Gore-Tex rain suit, etc, etc. — all still worked just fine and dandy. Not a single piece of my backpacking gear — which was all cutting edge when I bought it — had failed, though it had all been used for multi-month thru-hikes on the Arizona Trail, the Colorado section of the Continental Divide Trail and the Colorado Trail — to say nothing of hundreds of other trail days and nights in 20 states and 15 countries. Every single piece of backpacking paraphernalia I owned served as a poster child for gear well made, well used and still very much usable.

Yet, there I was, suddenly eyeballing catalogues, gear stores and websites, looking to — gulp! — “upgrade.” And, as a result, I felt sheepish, unclean, even, like I was suddenly a card-carrying member of the various gear-crazed, more-money-than-brains demographics that often dominate the sociology of Mountain Country and that my drunken reprobate hiking buddies and I ridicule at every opportunity, even though we like to see such people parting with their cash at our local gear stores.

So, why then was I discarding all that old, still-very-functional gear in favor of new stuff? I can tell you without compunction that it had nothing whatsoever to do with image enhancement, or keeping up with the Joneses, or being a compulsive gear-acquisition junkie. No, my shopping binge was a result of recent technical innovations resulting in much lighter equipage. After a lifetime of hauling heavy packs up and down mountains all day for weeks on end, my increasingly decrepit corpus delecti had taken a serious hit on the soft tissue front. Basically, a lot of shit had started to hurt. Ergo, I decided to take advantage of all the new gear now available that is literally often half the weight of the gear I have happily owned and operated for so long.

So, in stealth fashion, so none of my drunken reprobate hiking buddies would know, I pulled out the checkbook and bought myself a GoLite sleeping bag and frameless pack, a one-person Sierra Designs tent, an ultralight, three-quarters-length Therm-a-Rest pad, with a matching six-ounce camp chair, a GSI titanium cook kit, a Snow Peak stove that’s lighter than a Macanudo cigar, an EMS rain suit that can fit into my front pocket, a couple of flexible Platypus water bottles and, in place of the filter, a bottle of chemical water purification tablets. All told, I cut at least 20 pounds off the base weight of my pack, without making any compromises whatsoever on the comfort front.

All that is well and good, of course, but then came the day when yours truly met up with my drunken reprobate hiking buddies at the Gila trailhead. I did not say a word as I prepared to sling my new ensemble onto my back. But, before I could do so, my longest-lived drunken reprobate hiking buddy cleared his throat and said words to the effect of, “Damnation, boy, what’s that shit you got on your back?” The ribbing did not diminish for the duration of that equipment shakedown cruise. I was accused ad infinitum of jumping onto a faddish bandwagon. But, by the end of the trip, my drunken reprobate hiking buddies, who are the same age I am, started making note of the fact that I seemed far fresher than they were. And I was, indeed. It was not long before those drunken reprobate buddies began perusing gear catalogues for lighter gear.

It dawned on me as I penned these words several months ago, words that could go on in a retrospective and ruminative manner for many more pages (you know me!), that every member of the Mountain Gazette tribe likely has something to say about “gear,” and the role gear plays in their mountainous lives. Some, of course, eschew everything gear-related in a near Abbey-esque fashion, preferring to have their old Kelty Tiogas chemically decompose on their backs rather than purchase a new pack. Some are first in line when next year’s products are released. Most, I guess, are somewhere in between, buying new gear when their old gear wears out, or when there is a truly technological-improvement-based reason for pulling out the wallet.

No matter their procurement perspectives, we all own gear, whether that gear is new or ancient, top-end or scrounged from a dumpster. And many of us have gear-based stories to tell. Earlier in the summer, I put out a call for gear-related stories, and, as usual, received about 10 times more than I could ever get in print. What follows is a representative smattering of submissions that cover just about every conceivable perspective toward the often over-rated, often necessary, often unnecessary concept of gear.

—MJF

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